Welcome to the April 2014 edition of On the Rush. With the postseason underway, this will be the final column for the 2013-14 season. As such, this edition will focus on prospects at various levels of competition who exceeded expectations or fell behind a bit over the course of the entire season.
This iteration includes three of the better goaltenders at their respective levels, disappointing first round picks, up-and-coming wingers, and those who have not playing up to their potentials.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
Russian forward Nikita Kucherov put together a solid rookie season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kucherov started the 2013-14 season with Tampa Bay’s minor league affiliate Syracuse but was not there for long. After scoring 13 goals and 11 assists in 17 AHL games, he was recalled to Tampa Bay where he stayed the rest of the season. It did not take long for him to light the lamp as he scored his first career NHL goal on his first shot on his first shift. He endured through hot and cold streaks throughout the year, but Kucherov was solid overall.
He has all the qualities of a high-end scorer: speed, an accurate shot, and a willingness to go to the net. Look for Kucherov to take a more prominent role offensively next season.
On The Rush generally tries to feature players who are a little more off the beaten path than your regular, highly-touted prospects. However, the year that John Gibson had was incredibly impressive. While there is normally several years of a feeling out process from the junior to the pro level for a goaltender, Gibson grabbed the AHL by the throat. He has posted a .919 save percentage on the year in 45 starts. At the young age of 20, Gibson performed well enough down the stretch that the Ducks were compelled to give the former Kitchener Ranger a chance at his NHL debut. He seized the opportunity and notched a .954 in a perfect 3-0-0 start to his NHL career. The winner’s mentality, which is often talked about with Gibson, is clear as day at this point. Not only is Gibson a talented technical goaltender, he has the mental make-up and attitude to be a winner at the NHL level. It is not a question of “if” he becomes a full-time NHL starter, it is a question of “when.”
North American Junior
The Danish forward’s second year in juniors is about to end, but it has been quite the year for the Blue Jackets third round pick. Bjorkstrand exploded for 50 goals and 109 points in the regular season in 59 games with the Portland Winterhawks. His solid play carried over into the postseason as he leads all scorers with 15 goals and 30 points in 16 games.
The 19-year-old Bjorkstrand was signed in December by Columbus, but it would not hurt if the youngster continued to play in junior. Through two WHL seasons, he has grown to to 6’0” and 170 pounds, but still needs to get stronger. He plays aggressive up the ice against bigger foes in high traffic areas. His heavy shot and quick release have made him lethal.
Troy Bourke had a fantastic year. What makes it even more fantastic when you look at his point totals is that Prince George was downright awful this year in the WHL. As one of the alternate captains to the Cougars this season and as one of the team elders, Bourke had to endure a trying final season of juniors where the Cougars finished 18th out of 22 teams and missed the playoffs. In these times of struggle and rebuild, the teams look for players to lead by example, and play well despite the overall season not going so well. The Avs prospect did just that. He set career highs in goals, assists and points, with a 29-56-85 spread. It is also noteworthy that the Cougars were the third worst defensive team in the league with an overall goal differential of a -67. However, Bourke was just a minus-4 on the year as the team’s top player. He killed penalties, he played power play, and he led the team in scoring on the way to surpassing all his career numbers to this point. His late season call up to the AHL also proved successful as he notched seven points in a brief 15-game stint with Lake Erie. Despite a tough season for Prince George, Bourke was outstanding.
North American Amateur
To say Gostisbehere had a good junior campaign with Union is an understatement. The future Flyer was a force on the blue line this year, establishing himself as the franchise’s best defensive prospect. He is a more offensive defenseman, able to quarterback the power play and create chances by jumping into the play. His strength got better as he set a career high with 34 points, third amongst NCAA defensemen, in the Dutchmen’s National Championship run. When it was time for the postseason, he stepped up his game, especially in his own end. He made several key defensive plays throughout the tournament, but his overall presence in all three zones tilted the ice in Union’s favor. Gostisbehere signed with the Flyers following the National Championship.
For a second straight year in the NCAA, Connor Hellebuyck was a monster. Last season UMass-Lowell stood behind their All-rookie goaltender en route to a Hockey East title. This year, while the team could not lock up similar achievements, their goaltender was still one of, if not the best in NCAA. In his sophomore season, the 20-year-old posted a 1.79 goals against and a .941 save percentage to go along with an 18-9-2 record on the year. The numbers he posted in both goals against and save percentage were tops in the entire NCAA. Being that he is only a sophomore adds to the impressiveness of his current achievements. Hellebuyck was selected to the All-America East First Team and was also named a First Team All-Star for Hockey East. He is technically sound, has great size, and is an intelligent goaltender. All of these things plus is achievements thus far in NCAA bode well for his future as a potential NHL goaltender. Hellebuyck signed his entry-level contract with Winnipeg in April and joined Team USA’s national team for the World Championships this month in Belarus.
If the Islanders goaltending situation is not resolved next season, then the team may have an ace-in-the-hole come 2015. In his first season in the KHL, Koskinen was outstanding. He played in 41 games for Novosibrisk Sibir and finished with a 20-11-8 record. He established himself as one of the better puck stoppers in the league with a .939 save percentage and a 1.70 goals against average. In the postseason, he was just good, posting a .928 save percentage with a 1.98 goals against average.
Koskinen still has one year remaining on his contract in the KHL. If he puts together another strong year, he could compete for a job in New York following his unsuccessful first stint in North America.
The disappointment the Kings had when they lost the contractual dispute with CSKA Moscow over Nikolai Prokhorkin was fairly evident. What was not evident though was how dominant a force the young forward was going to be in the top flight of the KHL just over a year later. At age 20, the young forward did some pretty impressive stuff in the KHL. He led CSKA Moscow in scoring with 37 points in 52 games. That was also good enough to put him at 21st overall in the league. The KHL has imported tons of ex-NHL players and have plenty of homegrown talent as well, so to be amongst the tops in scoring in that league is no small achievement. It was also noted how physical and imposing Prokhorkin was. He has great size, skill, and a mentality to battle for pucks both in front of the net and in the corners. This is only going to lead to success in North America when the time comes. Although it may have been disappointing to Kings fans that Prokhorkin was not a member of the AHL Manchester Monarchs, you can only look at this year in Europe as a triumphant success for the young forward.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
The frustration surrounding Grigorenko’s development is two sided. Buffalo is partly responsible for mishandling his development, but this season proved to be especially strenuous. He struggled in his second NHL stint and found himself in the press box more times than not. Unable to send him to the AHL, they re-assigned him to the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, though he was reluctant to accept. He put up solid numbers in juniors, but there is nothing left for him to prove there. At times, the Russian born centerman has been his own worst enemy. Despite possessing elite-level scoring talent, he seemed to display disinterest and a lack of effort on the ice. Even with a solid performance at the 2014 World Junior Championships, this could be considered a lost year for him. Grigorenko controls his own destiny, and there is still hope he will develop into the top line forward he was projected to be. Until then, he has a lot of work ahead of him.
The transition from any junior or minor level to the NHL can be a difficult one. Playing in Färjestad of the SHL for the past several years, Klefbom has had the chance to develop against more mature and skilled players than your average CHL league. However, the transition has still looked to trip him up after his first year at the pro level. Klefbom is regarded as a highly mobile two-way defenseman with a great hockey IQ. However, the change of speed and ice surface from Europe to the NHL has increased the speed in which all his decisions have to be made. While he looked more and more comfortable towards the end of the year, Klefbom can file this season away into the “hard knocks” category. He had just 10 points and one goal in 48 games with the Barons. Outside the points though was where Klefbom struggled. When it came to picking up his man, engaging in battles, and reading the play, he seemed a step behind. There is also the concern over the young Swede’s health, as he is often injured. A bit of a steep learning curve is to be expected of young players, but Edmonton is building a solid defensive pipeline and Klefbom best not slip any further in the future or have too many seasons you could categorize as “learning seasons.”
North American Junior
Carolina has struggled in the past to turn their late-round picks into full-time NHL players. Pedersen, selected in the 2013 draft, has the potential to buck the trend. The power forward addresses a need in the Hurricanes’ system with his hardnosed presence around the net as well as his gritty play. Coming off a successful second year in Kitchener, many felt he was due for a breakout season once he took on a more prominent role. Things did not go as planned in 2013-14, as Pedersen never took off as many predicted. The 6’2”, 205-pound forward struggled to produce offensively due to a lack of finish and inability to build off past performances. His offense plateaued with 18 goals, 13 assists, and 31 points, which was one more point than last year’s production. Fans should still be patient as Pedersen was expected to be a long-term project, but he needs to show he can produce more points next season.
At this point in time it looks as though Bigras may have been a reach as the second selection of the 2013 second round. This is not to say that there are qualities of Bigras’ game that are not strong though. He is a good skater and a responsible player, but the lack of aggression and willingness to engage attacking forwards that he displayed all year has to be concerning as he steps forth into bigger and more physical leagues. He did have 26 points on the year in 55 games, which shows a decent ability to move the puck, but again when it comes to the defensive side of the game he struggled in 2013-14. While there are players in the NHL with similar size and abilities, Bigras is not showing much upside to an already somewhat underwhelming skill set. If anything, the 19-year-old is going to be a slow-played asset by the Avalanche, giving him plenty of time in the AHL to get used to a much more physical and fast game. The real measuring stick will come in time when other defenseman selected later in the draft like Robert Hagg (PHI), Steve Santini (NJD), and Madison Bowey (WAS) start to develop and push the NHL.
North American Amateur
Phil Di Giuseppe, C, University of Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes
2nd round, 38th overall in 2012
At the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, Di Giuseppe left school to join the pro ranks. When looking back at his career at Michigan, it was good, but he never reached a higher level as some thought he might. This past year, the Wolverines featured a young roster with Di Giuseppe expected to carry more of the scoring load. While he finished the season on fire with eight goals and 10 points in his final nine games, the Hurricane’s prospect underperformed for much of the season. Despite finishing with 13 goals and 11 assists, his younger teammates like J.T. Compher (BUF) and Andrew Copp (WPG) outplayed him. Di Giuseppe will make the transition to the pros next season with Carolina’s AHL affiliate.
Penn State had a very difficult year upon joining a new conference. Not only did the team struggle, but one of its most reliable players did as well. We covered the struggles of Max Gardiner in previous months, but it bears repeating. The former third round selection had one point all season. Of the 22 games played, Gardiner notched a lone assist and was a minus-12 rating. This extremely unproductive year comes on the back of a 21-point redshirt sophomore season with Penn State. He looked overmatched, overwhelmed, and very shaky in a conference full of strong competition. That probably does not impress the St. Louis staff either, as Gardiner is going to have to rise to the occasion if he wants to make an impact on a rather thin St. Louis Blues pipeline. Tough year for Gardiner and Penn State, but the real test will come next year when they get another crack at proving they belong in Division I.
Joonas Korpisalo, G, Ilves (Liiga)
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets
3rd round, 62nd overall in 2012
The 2013-14 season was a struggle for Korpisalo to say the least. The Blue Jackets prospect had a hard time finding a starting job overseas, playing with six different teams in three different leagues. Before this year, the Finnish netminder was only loaned once in his career. He only played in 20 games total, the most with Iives of Liiga, where he played his best with a 1.42 goals against average through eight games. Early season injuries forced him to miss some playing time, which may explain why he had a difficult time finding his rhythm.
Fortunately for the big, athletic goaltender, he signed an entry-level deal with Columbus on March 21st. Korpisalo has proven before this year he can be a reliable goaltender, but the 2012 Jorma Valtonen Award winner will need to re-establish himself for the North American game.
Daniil Zharkov, LW, Torpedo Novgorod (KHL)
Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers
3rd round, 91st overall in 2012
Zharkov was an incredibly hyped talent coming into the 2012 NHL Draft. Scouts were enamored with his size and skill set, and his ability to play a game with a positive projection into the NHL. When drafted by the Oilers in the late third round it was considered a tremendous steal. After two rather strong seasons in the OHL, Zharkov made way for Russia. His first season there, quite frankly, has been terrible. As a 25-goal scorer in the CHL, Zharkov potted just two goals in his 49 games played this season with Torpedo Novgorod. There were major questions on whether or not this move would be good for his development when it happened, and the answer is now quite clear. Given how his season has gone this year it is not out of the question he starts 2014-15 in the VHL rather than the KHL. The big guy had trouble holding his own at the top level.
Article written by John Iadevaia (Eastern Conference) and Jason Lewis (Western Conference).